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Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture Civil and Environmental Engineering Newsletter – Summer 2013

Protecting Bridges from Deterioration and Damage

By Emily Smudde, reprinted from WSU News 

When a truck collided with the Skagit River bridge this spring, the bridge disastrously collapsed, disrupting a major transportation artery in the Northwest. About one third of the 600,000 bridges in the United States are in need of repair or replacement due to deterioration and damage, including that caused by vehicle collisions.

A Washington State University civil engineer is applying his expertise in aerospace techniques to create an inexpensive solution to this growing problem.

Based on a previous study conducted by him and his colleagues for the Ohio Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration, Pizhong Qiao, professor of civil and environmental engineering, sandwiched aluminum and layers of honeycomb material to create impact-laminate (I-Lam) panels. The system protects bridges by absorbing the energy from collisions. In addition, data collected from attached sensors can help prevent future collisions.

If successful, the panels could be a major breakthrough in bridge protection and could be implemented nationwide, Qiao said.

Energy Absorption

diagram of bridge girder and i-Lam panelThe panels – filled with layers of honeycombed compartments – cover the underside girders and sides of a bridge, he said. In a collision, the compartments are crushed, destroying the panel but saving the bridge.

“This is a sacrificing type of system,” he said. “The I-Lam sacrifices itself to protect the bridge girders underneath.”

After the collision, the panel can easily be replaced, which saves the hassle and expense of repairing the bridge, Qiao said.

“Here at WSU, we are the first to apply an I-Lam system like this,” he said. The honeycomb is used in aerospace technology as an energy-absorption system, but it hasn’t been applied much like this, he said.

Detection System Too

The panels also help detect and monitor collisions, Qiao said. Attached smart piezoelectric sensors trigger remote data collection when panels are hit. Damage is reported early and data is collected to make improvements.

“The proposed detection system is capable of triggering a camera to catch the collision,” he said. “Knowing what types of vehicles collide with bridges may help develop future collision prevention strategies.”

In collaboration with Professor J. Leroy Hulsey of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Qiao received a $200,941 grant from the Alaska University Transportation Center to test and implement the I-Lam system in cold-weather regions. After conducting analytical modeling and lab testing, the researchers hope to conduct future field tests in the Northwest. The Washington State Department of Transportation has also shown interest in the proposed system, as many bridges in the state have been hit by overheight trucks.

The Challenges of Cold Weather

Although the panels can be used in other climates, cold-weather regions pose particular challenges to monitoring and repairing bridges after collisions, Qiao said. Bridges often are in remote areas and the weather makes detection and repair difficult. Without repair, bridges can deteriorate.

“After a collision, the concrete girder will peel off, exposing the steel reinforcement inside,” Qiao said. “Exposing these reinforcements to the moist climate of these regions can cause permanent damage to the bridge.”

By preventing damage and alerting local authorities that repairs are needed, the I-Lam system will help extend the life of these structures.